Swords, daggers, and guns

 

Luke 22:35-38; 47-51
35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”
“Nothing,” they answered.
36 He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”
38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”
“That’s enough!” he replied.
47 While he was still speaking a crowd came up, and the man who was called Judas, one of the Twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him, 48 but Jesus asked him, “Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?”
49 When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear.
51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.

Every now and then we take a break from following the lectionary and delve into some contentious topic that is likely to cause us to get a little uncomfortable and is intended to make us think about things a little more deeply. Today is one of those days.

I have chosen today to do more of a topical sermon because my parents are going to be with us this week and I want them to wonder what in the world has happened to their middle child since moving to Virginia. I want them to blame you all for turning me into a ragin’ lib’ral.

No, that isn’t my reason for looking at this topic today. The reasons I have chosen to speak on gun violence today are many. I want to talk about gun violence today because tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and MLK was a champion of nonviolence in the way of Jesus. I want to address this today because recently President Obama has pushed some legislation through congress regarding gun rights. I wanted to talk about this topic today because today is “National Sanctity of Life Sunday,” and gun violence clearly represents a failure on the part of the church to discuss the sanctity of human life.

But ultimately, my reason for preaching on this text today and speaking on this subject comes down to two things: I am so very tired of the phrase “mass shooting,” and I believe that we can make a difference.

I chose today’s text because it is about the only text in the New Testament that can be used to argue for gathering more weapons. Anytime someone starts talking about the nonviolence of Jesus and our call to follow him, without fail, people ask one of three questions: 1. Didn’t Jesus make a whip and drive people out of the temple? 2. What would you do if… (fill in the blank with Hitler or someone was trying to break into your home and do bad things to your family)? And 3. Didn’t Jesus tell his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy a sword?

So let’s just check off the first two quickly and spend time on the third. 1. No, Jesus did not use a whip on people. The Bible says that he used the whip to drive out the animals that were likely being sold at inflated prices in the temple. And even if he did use a whip to make the people move a little faster, this does not make it okay for me to own an assault rifle.

2. What would you do if… First of all, this is the strongest argument for the use of violence in my opinion. Jesus never speaks about using violence to defend a defenseless person. He says not to defend yourself, but not necessarily another person. So I get this argument, even if I don’t buy into it. But ultimately, I don’t want us to miss the forest for the trees here. The Hitler question or defending your family may be fun theoretical questions for us to consider, but in the end these issues fall under the category of casuistry, which is the practice of taking an unlikely scenario and making universal ethical or moral pronouncements based on that scenario. Praise God that most of us will never have to make the decision whether or not to use violence to defend our family and none of us will ever have the opportunity to take out Hitler, Bin Laden, or the next “bad guy” to come along. I think that this issue is overly simplified, as if the only options available to us were to kill a home invader or let him kill us.

My point is this. Regardless of whether you would use lethal violence or not in one of these extreme cases, we can all agree that Jesus was a peaceful person. He was called the Prince of Peace, after all. And any extreme cases and questions should not overshadow the fact that Jesus placed a high value on human life. Not only did he forbid murder, he forbid any kind of anger or hatred that might lead to murder. He spoke of loving not only your friends, but even your enemies. And it is very hard to love someone when you are beating them up or taking their life.

Can we all at least agree that Jesus’ default setting was on peaceful resolutions and honoring all human life? Good. So what in the world are we going to do about today’s passage?

Our scripture this morning comes from Luke’s account of the Last Supper. They have broken their bread and drank their wine, and Jesus is about to head out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. And Jesus say, Hey you guys. Do you remember that time when I sent you out without money and without extra sandals to do some preaching, teaching, and healing? That went okay for you, now didn’t it?

The disciples say, It sure did.

Then in verse 36 we find this saying from Jesus that seems very uncharacteristic of him, “He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.’”

What the what? Here is our peace-loving, turn-the-other-cheek proclaiming, do-not-resist-an-evildoer commanding Lord and Savior telling his disciples to sell their coats and buy a sword. And breaking it down into the Greek doesn’t really help because the word we translate as “sword” here is μάχαιρα. This isn’t a large battle sword, nor is it a little pocket knife. This is a dagger that you could carry around under your clothes or in your belt and pull it out to stab someone.

Some have said that in this passage we find that Jesus obviously wasn’t as nonviolent as many of us would like to make him out to be. This line of thinking then suggests that Jesus was actually encouraging his followers to arm themselves, perhaps for acts of violence, or in the very least for self-defense. Let’s consider that options in order.

First of all, we cannot stop reading at verse 36 and expect that we have a full understanding of what is going on. Anytime we lift a single verse out of its context we run the risk of seriously misunderstanding it. I’ll come back to verse 37 momentarily, so let’s look at verse 38: “The disciples said, ‘See, Lord, here are two swords.’ ‘That’s enough!’ he replied.”

So when Jesus says that the disciples should buy daggers, they say, We already have two! Now there are two ways of reading Jesus’ response, and our English translations will interpret this differently. One way is to read this as Jesus saying, “That’s enough,” as in the two daggers will be enough for what they are going to do.

But let’s think about this for a minute. Would two little daggers really be enough? Even with Judas taking off to betray Jesus, there were still 12 men there in the Upper Room. I would think that they would need at least 12 swords. And when you think about who they would be going up against, the Roman army, the most powerful military force of their time, two swords is not nearly enough! Obviously, Jesus is not telling them to get their swords together to do battle.

So maybe he was telling them to have some swords on hand to defend themselves. Perhaps having two swords would be enough to thwart a would-be attacker. But again, look what comes later in the chapter in verses 49-51: “When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, should we strike with our swords?’ And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. But Jesus answered, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched the man’s ear and healed him.”

If we add some of the dialogue from the other gospels we find Jesus telling Peter, “Put away your sword. For those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

Were the two swords “enough” for a violent overthrow? No way. Were they enough for the disciples to defend their selves and Jesus? Possibly, but I don’t think that is what he was saying here.

Another fun option is to read Jesus’ phrase, “That’s enough,” differently. The other day my children were trying to tickle me, and I’m really not ticklish, so it is just kind of annoying. So finally I just said, “That’s enough,” as in, you’ve had your fun, but let’s try something else now. Or when I get angry at them for wrestling, even though I keep telling them over and over to stop. I may raise my voice and say, “That’s enough! Each of you, go to your room!”

When I use the phrase, “That’s enough” in such a way, I’m saying, Obviously, this isn’t getting through to you. You aren’t understanding what I am trying to say.

I think that it is possible that Jesus used the phrase in this way. He may have been talking about swords and daggers in some metaphorical way, and when they announced to him that they really did have these two daggers on them at the time, Jesus may have lost patience and simply said, “That’s enough of this! I’ve had enough. You obviously are not listening to anything that I’m saying.”

But the more I think about it, the more I see this passage differently. I think that Jesus was saying that two swords, two daggers were sufficient. Sufficient for what? Let’s look again at verse 36 and add 37 this time: “He said to them, ‘But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.’”

I don’t believe that Jesus was condoning violence by telling his disciples to buy daggers. He was simply fulfilling a prophesy from Isaiah 53:12, “Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Isiah 53, which is one of the “suffering servant” passages that points toward the death of the messiah, says that the messiah will be numbered among the transgressors. And evidently, having these two daggers that could be hidden within their clothing qualified the disciples as transgressors, lawbreakers, or sinners.

Jesus wasn’t trying to validate his followers carrying weapons. He was trying to fulfill scripture. And in doing so, he is saying the exact opposite of what many people understand this passage to mean. He isn’t saying that his followers can or should carry weapons, regardless of whether they are for offense or defense. He is saying that if you do carry a weapon, you are missing the point. You are a transgressor.

So let’s get practical here. I know that a few people in our congregation are hunters and you keep rifles and shotguns in your homes for hunting purposes. When animals are killed in humane ways and eaten as a means of sustenance, I have no problem with this. And you may choose to keep a gun in your home for protection, and while I disagree with this, I understand it. And most gun owners in the United States have a gun for one of those two reasons.

This may surprise you, but it turns out that most Americans actually have very similar views on gun laws and ownership. It is always those on the extreme ends of the argument that make the majority of us in the middle confused. Let me give you some statistics to show you what I mean. Pew Research has found that 85% of Americans support expanded background checks for anyone attempting to purchase a fire arm. This would apply especially to things like online sales of guns and gun shows. Did you know that you can walk into a gun show today and walk out with a gun without anyone checking to see if you have a major conviction on your record? 85% of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, believe we should close that loophole.

79% believe that people with certain mental illnesses should not be able to purchase guns. Legislation like that may have prevented shootings at places like Sandy Hook Elementary School, Virginia Tech, and Aurora, Colorado. 70% of Americans support a federal gun registry, so if a gun is sold, it is easier to find the gun’s current owner. A large percentage of guns used to commit crimes have been sold with no record of the name of the person who purchased it. And 57% of people support a ban on assault weapons. If you are using a weapon to hunt or protect your house, you do not need to be able to fire over 50 bullets per minute. If you need to be able to fire 50 bullets in under a minute while hunting deer, perhaps you should find a different hobby. And in the United States, we have a list of people who our government has decided pose a threat to our country and others. These people are on the “No fly list,” so they cannot get on a commercial airliner. If you are not allowed to fly, maybe you shouldn’t be allowed to buy a gun.

Our country, at least according to our news outlets, is divided between those who want to limit gun ownership and those who want to preserve gun rights. But again, according to Pew Research, 82% of people who advocate for 2nd Amendment Rights still want tighter gun laws.

Regardless of if you consider yourself an absolute pacifist, or if you simply want to reduce the incidence of gun-related deaths in the United States, it is clear that there are some common-sense steps that we can take to begin to scratch the surface. But I think that there is something that we can do that will have a greater impact than any law could have.

After every mass shooting, and we all know that those come along too frequently, we hear politicians divide down party lines about what the “right” response is. Democrats tend to say that we need more laws. There are too many guns on the street. Republicans will counter by saying that we don’t have a gun problem, we have a “respect for human life” problem. I simply cannot understand why we set this up as an either/or. We have a gun problem and a respect for human life problem.

Just a few more stats to make a point. In the United States, there are 10 gun deaths each year for every 100,000 people. That’s really high. Now compare that to Japan, who has .07 gun deaths per 100,000 people. Japan has stricter gun laws than the US. How about Switzerland, which has 3.84 gun deaths per 100,000 people. That’s less than half the gun deaths we experience here in the US. Switzerland has looser gun laws than we do.

Gun laws may make a difference. But ultimately, we need to become the kind of society that sees all human lives as precious, not only to God, but also to us. We cannot value one life less than another. The people sitting in the pews here today are precious. The people sitting in prison today are precious. The people living in penthouse apartments are precious. And the people living in the streets are precious. The people working on Wall Street are precious. The people working in brothels are precious. The people who took Jesus’ life are precious, just as the one who gave his life for us is precious.

I want to leave you all with a story that I think will challenge our imaginations, pushing us to think differently. On New Year’s Eve, Larry Wright, pastor of a small church in North Carolina, was having a late-night service to usher in the New Year. As he stood at the pulpit delivering a sermon, he saw a man walk in from the back of the church, carrying a rifle in one hand and a loaded ammo clip in the other. The man walked right up to the front of the church, and Larry asked him, “Can I help you?”

You know, because that’s what you do when someone walks up to you in a church with a gun.

On the mind of everyone in the congregation was surely the shootings in Charleston, South Carolina. But when the pastor asked “Can I help you?” the man replied, “Will you pray for me?” And they did.

They stopped the service, laid hands on the man, and prayed for him right there. And after a little while, the pastor said that he wanted to finish his sermon, so he invited the man to sit down in the front row. And just before the stroke of midnight, the pastor had an altar call, and the young, would-be gunman made the decision to follow Jesus.

As beautiful as that story is, it doesn’t end there. A few days later, CNN was at the church, interviewing the pastor, when all at once that pastor looks up and says, “There he is.” No charges were filed against the man, and he was coming back to apologize. He even asked how he could get involved in the ministry of the church.

Do we have a gun problem in the United States? Yes, I’m sure that we do. And I am confident that together we can make some common-sense decisions that can start to whittle away at some of those issues. Do we have a lack of respect, a lack of reverence for human life? Absolutely. And with God’s help, maybe one day we will be able to see all people with His eyes. Eyes that see the beauty inherent in every last person. Eyes that see people as someone for whom you will die, not as someone from whom you must protect yourself, at all cost.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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